By Richard Clarke
While some have suggested Arsenal's side needs major surgery before next season, this straightforward yet satisfying victory suggests they may be able to heal their own wounds.
After the drama and disappointment of recent weeks, Arsène Wenger's team needed a game where the points gained reflected the performance put in. That is pretty much what happened against Reading at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
Arsenal were a little sluggish at the start but once Emmanuel Adebayor put them ahead on 30 minutes they never looked back. Gilberto added another just before the break with a deflected shot (oh for such good fortune in the past fortnight) but the home side were well worthy of their advantage.
Reading looked haunted by relegation and Theo Walcott ran them ragged. Robin van Persie might have added a third after the break when his free-kick hit both post and bar.
The visitors mounted something of a response in the final 10 minutes but it was much too little and much too late.
The last time Arsenal won a Premier League game at home was back February 11 when they beat Blackburn by the same scoreline. Then they were five points clear of Manchester United. This victory put then six behind having played a game more.
There is a bitter-sweet irony in the fact that Arsenal cruised through this game and came away easy winners when at Liverpool and Manchester United they played much better only to lose.
While Wenger's side will be ultimately judged on the big games this season, ahead of this fixture the manager had said the next campaign would start today.
On the evidence of this afternoon, there is plenty of quality left in this Arsenal outfit.
Wenger made just one change from the side beaten at Old Trafford last Sunday. Walcott came in on the right side of the midfield and Emmanuel Eboue dropped to bench. Jens Lehmann continued between the posts, in front of him Alex Song continued at centre half and, in front of him, Gilberto continued in central midfield.
Arsenal's injury list was Justin Hoyte (hamstring), Bacary Sagna, Mathieu Flamini (both ankle), Eduardo (broken leg) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring). Abou Diaby was seeing out the last game of his suspension but it was good to see Denilson named on the bench after seven weeks out with a hamstring injury.
It was a bitterly cold April afternoon at Emirates Stadium but, while Arsenal had a distinctly end-of-season feel about them, Reading had fallen towards the drop zone in alarming fashion in recent weeks. Steve Coppell's side would surely look to capitalise on any wandering minds in the home side.
The early moments of class came from Alex Hleb. First, he set Gael Clichy clear on the left only for the full back to be brought down. Then he released Cesc Fabregas through the centre but, pursued by two visiting defenders, the Spaniard could only poke a stumbling effort at keeper Marcus Hahnemann.
Reading's only threat in the opening quarter came when Liam Rosenior floated over a free-kick from the left and, though Lehmann caught the ball cleanly, he got bundled over by Andre Bikey.
Generally the opening stages had been flat and featureless. The most dramatic moment came after 20 minutes when Ivar Ingimarsson, under pressure from Walcott, miscued a clearance over the head of Hahnemann. The American recovered as the ball bounced towards goal.
The England striker was starting to sparkle. He nearly reached Van Persie's corner with his head and then raced onto Gallas' ball through but his clever cutback was cleared.
Arsenal were starting to exert serious pressure. Van Persie whipped in a vicious free-kick that Hahnemann scooped around the post. From the resulting corner, Song steered a header wide from six yards out.
In the end, the opening goal was simplicity itself. On 29 minutes, Toure clipped in a cross from the right, Adebayor evaded Ibrahima Sonko just outside the area and slotted home his 21st goal in all competitions past the helpless Hahnemann. It was no more than the home side deserved.
Almost immediately, Arsenal nearly got a second. Toure reached the byline and slid a low ball cross the area. Fabregas, also sliding, just failed to meet it.
The respite would be short as, in the 38th minute, Arsenal did score again. Fabregas, who had enjoyed an excellent first half, teed up Gilberto and the Brazilian's drive was diverted in via the head of Bikey. A rare piece of the luck for Wenger's men.
Freed from their title-chasing shackles and comfortably in front, Arsenal began to turn on the style. Adebayor reached the byline and his cutback was met by the galloping Van Persie but Hanhemann saved low to his right. Then the American blocked Toure's shot at the near post and Gilberto's daisy-cutter.
The statistics told the tale of the game at the break. In the first 45 minutes, Arsenal had enjoyed 70 per cent of possession and were totally on top.
For once, the scoreline reflected their domination.
Reading were fighting for their Premier League future and a response was expected. They did stem some of Arsenal's flow after the restart but, at the same time, the home side might have extended their lead in the opening minutes.
Walcott tried to chip Hahnemann after the keeper went wandering, Van Persie had a close-range effort blocked following a scramble in the area.
Just before the hour, Eboue replaced Toure. The latter went straight down the tunnel after he
left the pitch, suggesting he had picked up a knock.
Reading were not chancing their arm like you might have expected and, really, Arsenal were playing in second gear. In the 68th minute Fabregas nodded over from Walcott's dinked cross. The Englishman was still catching the eye and his pace always troubled the visiting defenders.
Sonko brought him down soon afterwards and Van Persie's incredible free-kick hit the bar and then the post before bouncing out to safety.
Just after that, Fabregas shuffled into the area and Walcott sidefooted a shot onto the bar.
Finally Reading began to push forward. Bobby Convey saw an effort tipped over and substitute Michael Duberry might have scrambled the ball in from a corner. But Walcott went clear and should have scored, Van Persie had another shot blocked then finally Fabregas saw an effort cleared off the line.
The best chance Arsenal had to add a third came in injury time when Gilberto burst through with Reading claiming offside. The Brazilian was almost surprised himself to be allowed to run on but replays proved the decision to be correct.
His shot was weak and woeful but it was the final act of an Arsenal performance that had shown exactly the opposite qualities.
- Toure 60
- Silva Goal!
- Hleb 74
- Adebayor 74 Goal!
- van Persie
- Denilson 74
- Eboue 60
- Bendtner 74
- Sonko 74 Yellow Card
- Bikey Yellow Card
- Harper 74
- Kitson Yellow Card
- Kebe 79
- Duberry 74
- Matejovsky 79
- Fae 74